A million or so words have been devoted to account for the immense popularity in the Spanish-speaking world for the mythical screen character Cantinflas. This outpouring of analysis is particularly rich in the wake of the release of the film “Cantinflas” last week.
The creator of the internationally famous comic personality, Mario Moreno, who died in 1993 of lung cancer at the age of 81, defined the appeal of Cantinflas simply: “He’s a poor little guy with great feelings. But he doesn’t let anyone push him around. He just wants to help when he sees injustice, even though he’s probably the one who needs help. Still he wants to do great things, to intervene, to be important.”
This ethical and psychological stance is central to the international popularity of the Cantinflas character. It is equally central to the impact this fictional personality has had not only on Mexican comedy, filmmaking and the entertainment industry, but on Mexican society.
Cantinflas stirred Mexican audiences because Moreno gave his Everyman of the Lower Class visible social value. What Moreno’s peladito — poor little guy — did had results of some kind (a startling idea for the poor in the early 1940s) that the wealthy and the middle classes had to pay attention to.
This caught the affection of the emerging middle class that was created by the sudden economic growth Mexico’s economy enjoyed during World War II. New recruits to this economic class, whose families had been stuck on the pelado rung of the income ladder, saw in Cantinflas an acceptable version of their past. It was a version leeched of the past’s unrelieved grimness and bitterness, a version that burnished the nobility of the poor’s struggle against their condition and spotlighted their warm attachments to family, friends and others in bad straights.
It was fiction, but only to some extent. Moreno, who as a youth had performed in the carpas — tent shows that played the poorest barrios — knew well the tribulations of the poor and drew heavily on this experience to base Cantinflas’ cavortings solidly in reality.